The Music of My Novel

The Music of My Novel

I’m writing a novel. Well, I wrote a novel. A draft of a novel. 85,000 words, 250 double-spaced pages. The novel follows a seventeen-year-old girl, Beanie, as she searches for her missing father while simultaneously becoming an Academic Games superstar. Set in the late 1990s, the novel is inspired by parts of my childhood and set in my hometown – New Orleans. While the setting and the time period are, hopefully, well-represented in the book, one thing is not present, and that’s the soundtrack. Partially, music is absent because I didn’t know how to write a book with music that isn’t about music. I didn’t want to just name-drop certain songs so that reader’s could identify the era. And, to be honest, my character, Beanie, isn’t really into music. It’s not part of who she is in the scope of the book. So, while she does listen to her Discman once in order to drown out something she’s afraid to hear, she doesn’t watch music videos on The Box or order CDs from that awful subscription service, Columbia House.

That being said, in the late 1990s, I did those things! I think I mistakenly ordered an Amy Grant CD and had it up until Hurricane Katrina. I would sit in front of the TV and write down the codes for all my favorite songs on the Box, then order them after begging my mom to allow that extra $2.99 to show up on our phone bill.

So, in honor of Beanie, here are some songs that she maybe would have heard if she had been in my Mid-City house instead of hers, back in 1999.

Time” and “I Only Wanna Be with You,” by Hootie & the Blowfish

Before Darius Rucker became the country superstar that he is now, I used to live to hear the strumming of his guitar and the beginning of “I Only Wanna Be with You.” And, I remember being asleep in the passenger seat of my dad’s old Honda Accord, driving home from Florida, waking up to “Time,” when we pulled in front of our house. Both these songs give me goosebumps, still.

Diggin on You,” by TLC

Ah, TLC. “Diggin on You” was our song, me and my eighth grade boyfriend. So sappy, but so sweet.

And finally, “One Sweet Day,” by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men. This song makes me so weepy, because whenever I hear it, I think of my dad. I remember sitting on a sofa at an eighth grade dance, singing the words with my eyes closed, bawling.

Even though these songs didn’t make their way into the book, I thought about them often while writing. If I ever felt blocked up or like I couldn’t get into the mood required to write, I would make a – admittedly cheesy – YouTube playlist and get revved up and back in writing mode. I definitely had all of the CDs at one time or another – what up, Columbia House – but, in the techno-connected-web-mess of now, they are all just a few clicks away.

 

 

That Time a Book Totally Slayed Me: All the Bright Places edition

That Time a Book Totally Slayed Me: All the Bright Places edition

I had never heard of Jennifer Niven before, and after having read her novel All the Bright Places, I am absolutely convinced that there are, literally, one million or more amazing writers out there who I’ve never heard of because, how I had never read her before is a mystery. This novel killed me. Killed me. I have been reading a lot of Young Adult lately because the novel I wrote and am preparing to query is YA, focusing on how one high school girl deals with the uncertainty and pain of a missing family member. All the Bright Places is similar in that the main characters, high school seniors Finch and Violet, are both suffering: Finch struggles with the way he sees and feels the world; Violet is traumatized by the death of her older sister. They meet, at the beginning of the book, on top of the school bell tower, presumably as they both contemplate suicide. The novel is told by Violet and Finch in alternating chapters.

Niven’s novel is a great example of a work that deals with a difficult, BIG topic – suicide – and a number of associated sub-topics – bullying, popularity, high school drinking, adult indifference – that does not beat the reader over the head. Yes, these topics are very important, they are timely, the should be talked about, but the novel is not didactic or editorial at all. I was completely captivated by her characters, their realistic and highly individualized personalities that were not quirky or interesting but were just true, as if they couldn’t be any other way. Violet, for example, wears her sister’s ugly eyeglasses, the ones that looked so great on Eleanor but look silly on her, because she is trying so desperately hard to hold on to someone she’s lost. The eyeglasses aren’t a gimmick. They are a totem for this character.

The novel could have been too-much, overly-sentimental, but Niven is expert at getting in and out of emotional moments with impeccable timing. For example, in a Violet section, she looks at her mother and contemplates her role in the family, her genetics:

“Eleanor looked more like my dad and I look more like Mom, but she and Mom had the same gestures, same mannerisms, so everyone always said, ‘Oh my God, she looks just like you.’ It hits me that my mother may never hear that again.”

UGH! And then she leaves the subject. It’s such a sad, sad thought, sad for the mom whose daughter is dead, sadder still that the 17-year-old sister/living daughter has to realize it, and even sadder that it’s just one of the many facts of her life in the aftermath of Eleanor’s death. And we know it is just one of the many facts of her life because after she states it, she matter-of-factly begins talking about something mundane. Niven gets out of that sad sentiment just in time, without lingering. The effect is crushing (in a good way).

And this book is not really a mystery, and yet, I had to keep turning the pages, to find out what would happen next. I think it’s because I’m rooting so hard for the characters, not because of any of the sad stuff that’s happened to them, but more because of how interesting they are, how much they deserve to become adults, because they’ll be good ones, good people, empathetic, creative, interesting. Reading this book really felt like what I imagine being a parent is like, being just so excited and invested in watching your kids grow up and fully inhabit the person they are meant to be.

Talk about #BookGoals!

Such a great read, and a reminder that YA is just a label, that great writing is great writing. Period.

Crazy Sh*t That Really Happened

Crazy Sh*t That Really Happened

I have said that I feel a bit more liberal about mining my real life for writing topics – something I tried really hard not to do, basically because I didn’t want to just fictionalize my life. It was boring when it happened and it would be boring on the page. Jk, jk – it wasn’t boring, but it wasn’t – and isn’t – fiction. It’s real life, and maybe I’ll write a memoir one day, when I’m rich and famous – lololol – but until then, my goal is to write compelling fiction.

Even so, a lot of what has happened in my life has very definitely informed what I end up writing about in fiction. For example, here is something that happened in real life once:

I was driving on S. Carrollton Avenue in New Orleans, approaching Earhart, and a group of well-coiffed 7 & 8 year-olds were on the streetcorners with buckets, asking for money to attend a basketball tournament out of state.

I used this scenario to write a story, called Service Learning, whose protagonist, once upon a time, did this very thing. Eventually, her mother stopped giving a shit about her but luckily she took the reins, managed to get a scholarship to a private high school, hoping it would be her ticket out of her bad neighborhood. All goes pretty well for her, or at least well enough, until the service learning trip for her grade goes back to that bad neighborhood, her neighborhood, in order to “help” people like her.

The story is wildly different from the scenario at the corner that I saw, but the two things go hand in hand. I wouldn’t have had the story without this experience.

I was thinking today about some things that have happened in my life that could be good fodder for stories or novels – these kernels of things that could provide an image or a scene. I was also trying to describe a setting and fumbled, describing the place I was (a university) because it was right in front of me. I had to scold myself into writing the setting I saw in my imagination. Fiction, after all.

Anyway, here is a short list of some of the many crazy things that I’ve experienced that could inspire something fictional:

  • When I was climbing out of the above-ground pool in my childhood backyard, I slipped and slammed my vagina – straight-up scissor-style – on the wall of the pool, but was WAAAAY to embarrassed to let anyone see.
  • At 18, a bouncer checked my ID at ladies night, saw I was 18 – old enough to get into a club but not to drink – and then handed me an empty cup because, “Ladies drink free til midnight.” Ok, so he shouldn’t have really wondered why I ended up rolling around the concrete at 2 in the morning, completely blitzed. His fault, am I right?
  • My then-boyfriend, now-husband, and I had breakfast at the same place almost every Sunday when we were in college. Once, I opened a packet of butter and slammed it on his glasses, rubbing it in. He had to get new glasses. We still talk about this, ten years later.
  • I have stayed awake for 72 hours, biking, running, hiking and canoeing, as an adventurer racer on Team Engine.
  • I bought my first plane ticket abroad – to Paris – the day in fall 2001, on November 12, 2001, two months after 9/11, when AA Flight 587 crashed in Queens.

I’ve been alive now for almost 34 years and, trust, this is just a SMALL sampling of crazy or interesting stuff that I’ve seen, done, experienced or caused, that could inspire a short story, a novella, a full-length book. I think keeping this list is a great way to force myself to feel inspired, to remember something wild, to start with a scenario or a spark and then just free-write.

What would be on your list?

First Readers

First Readers

I finished the first draft of my novel back in March. I sent it out to a few friends, readers who are very good at line editing, whose taste I trust. I had some questions for them, which they answered, and I spent March and April going through, page by page, fixing line issues, strengthening the language, cutting the boring stuff. Zadie Smith had a really great piece of advice when I saw her speak this past year. She edits in the airport, surrounded by people and noise and distraction. If she can’t stay focused, then whatever is happening in the book is not engaging enough, not compelling enough. The kill-your-darlings spirit carried me through these two months of edits before I sent the final manuscript off to the folks in my Tin House workshop and the mentor I’ll be working with while I’m in Portland.

I have another set of readers, though, and I feel quite a bit of fear when thinking of them reading the manuscript…My family. While the novel is…fiction…(i.e. the definition of a novel!), some plot elements come from some experiences I had as a teenager. I can admit that but I also have to stress that I took some great advice and separated the plot of the novel with the plot of my own life. Very little of what happens in the novel resembles what happened to me – or what I made happen to others – in real life. BUT, the fact remains. The book is about a missing father. I had a missing father.

So, when my aunts – my dad’s older sisters – finally saw the printed out copy of the book, and read the first sentences (I mean, the first words of the book are: “My dad disappeared Christmas of my eighth grade year…” or something to that effect), they started crying. Of course they did. The thing that happened to me didn’t just happen to me; it happened to them too, although in a different way. I had a hard time watching them get upset. They weren’t upset with me, and if they were, I knew they didn’t really have any right to be. But I also know that, in writing this novel, I have dredged up some history that makes a lot of people – myself included – very sad.

Thankfully, my husband, who has read the book in its many iterations and drafts, reminded me that, no matter the inspiration, the book is a work of fiction. It’s a novel. It’s not a memoir or autobiography or biography. It’s purely imagination. And he’s right. The book is set in New Orleans, but there isn’t a single oak tree that I’ve described based on an oak tree I know. The oak trees in the book are all made-up trees, an amalgamation of all the oak trees I’ve ever seen in my life, in New Orleans and elsewhere. And the dad in my book isn’t my dad, as much as I’d like him to be.

Showing the book to my first readers, my husband and my friends, wasn’t hard. Showing it to my family was. If it ever makes it into print, I hope that my extended family can read it, love it, appreciate it, not because my dad is present on its pages but because it is a beautifully rendered, highly imaginative work of fiction. And because they will know that he was in my heart, my brain and my hand as I wrote.

Summer Reading List – Week of June 27

Summer Reading List – Week of June 27

From the Fifteenth District by Mavis Gallant

I recently read “The Bog Girl” by Karen Russell, and then followed up on it by reading her interview about the story with the New Yorker. I was in awe of how, in the story, she created setting without me even noticing it, she transported me to this weird, otherworldly place and she set up dynamics between the main character, Cillian, his family and the kids at school. In the follow-up interview, she talked about the story, “From the Fifteenth District,” which inspired her a bit, saying, “In [the story], the dead are haunted by the living. One ghost complains that her widower husband keeps calling her “an angel”—she hates this bogus, patronizing word.” This idea caused her to come up with the bog girl. I’m always trying to understand how to be inspired, so that I can continue to build a repository of fresh ideas.  Having a long list of ideas means that if I am ever bored with something (i.e. my thesis!!), I don’t have an excuse to stop writing. I can just go to my list and start something new. I’m also thankful/excited to find a writer I’ve never heard of!

A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan

I am excited to read this novel, despite the fact that the plot seems like something we’ve all read before: a mom who works part-time must start working, juggling family issues, work and love. I actually love new, fresh takes on stories like these. Here’s a short description:

“In A Window Opens, Elisabeth Egan brings us Alice Pearse, a compulsively honest, longing-to-have-it-all, sandwich generation heroine for our social-media-obsessed, lean in (or opt out) age. Like her fictional forebears Kate Reddy and Bridget Jones, Alice plays many roles (which she never refers to as “wearing many hats” and wishes you wouldn’t, either). But when her husband makes a radical career change, Alice is ready to lean in–and she knows exactly how lucky she is to land a job at Scroll, a hip young start-up which promises to be the future of reading, with its chain of chic literary lounges and dedication to beloved classics. The Holy Grail of working mothers–an intellectually satisfying job and a happy personal life–seems suddenly within reach. Despite the disapproval of her best friend, who owns the local bookstore, Alice is proud of her new “balancing act” (which is more like a three-ring circus) until her dad gets sick, her marriage flounders, her babysitter gets fed up, her kids start to grow up, and her work takes an unexpected turn.”

I’m really trying to make sure that I read both literary and commercial fiction (I’d call this commercial…) in order to see what makes a book like this compelling. Usually, the answer to that question is THE WRITING, THE WRITING, THE WRITING! So, I’m reading it because I’m somewhat interested in the subject matter, and I’m interested in the commercial health and prospects of a well-written book. I’ve been very impressed by novels that I consider peer to this one – Liane Moriarty is an author that comes to mind – and I hope that A Window Opens is another novel, and Elisabeth Egan another author, to whom I can look up.

Tin House Novels-in-Progress

Finally, I am reading a stack of 25-page novel excerpts, while around the country, 11 other folks are being required to read my novel opening. I am so excited to be going to this workshop/residency, so excited to be in a class with Dana Spiotta and so excited to have Michelle Wildgen as a mentor. Did I say I’m excited????

Well, I’ve taken an almost two-month break from reading and critiquing workshop stories, and I’m a bit out of practice. But, I know the drill. Read read read. I will hopefully read them on the way to and from St. Louis and Chicago on a mash-up Barry’s birthday-Barry’s presenting at a conference-Chicago Cub’s game road trip! And I’m excited to see the final manifestation of all of these novels-in-progress, whether its two, ten or twenty years from now!

Storytelling

Storytelling

During one workshop, a professor offered a little nugget. Someone had submitted a story about a girl who was studying abroad, a satire that I didn’t recognize as such, and the professor commented that a story about a student in college may not resonate because the stakes weren’t high enough. He argued that, for the most part, college is this cushy, safe space where kids can try things out, seek how they go, and try again.

Of course, we immediately railed against him. What about “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” by ZZ Packer, we argued! Well, of course, there are exceptions to every maxim. Those exceptions are probably a large part of why some people dismiss MFA programs altogether. I grappled with his advice myself because I did not experience college as this kind of bouncy castle. Instead, I worked 40 hours a week to pay the tuition overage not covered by my federal loans. (Somehow, I had the wisdom to not take out a private loan, for which I am thankful to this day!) I was also still reeling from some teenage trauma that affected everything I did in college. I didn’t really make friends, I barely paid attention in class although I received straight A’s, I didn’t study abroad. College, to me, ended up being a piece of paper, an accumulation of credits that resulted in a document that meant I could make twelve dollars an hour instead of seven.

Long story long, college was tough. It wasn’t tough because college itself is tough, but it was tough because of the baggage I brought to the experience. So, I don’t think this professor was entirely right about his advice – there are stakes for some in college – but I understand his perspective. To write a story about someone in college, you really have to find the nuance that allows the conflict to matter.

We can look to the news to find ways that it can matter. A very widely discussed example is the Brock Turner case. *College* didn’t explicitly turn him into a registered sex offender, nor did *college* victimize the young woman he raped. But college, as a setting, provided a real, nuanced setting within which these two nuanced people converged and conflicted. I dare say they are both forever changed.

I’m thinking about this a bit now because I’m thinking of aspects of my life and my experience that I would consider weaving into a story or using to write a book. I think I’ve mentioned before that I used to feel conflicted about allowing my own life and experiences to influence my writing directly. But, I’ve let that go in writing my novel, in part because I read the incredible David Vann, whose work (or at least some of it) is taken a little bit from his real-life experiences. Other writers do it too! In writing The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, Vendela Vida was inspired by her backpack which was stolen in Morocco. Probably, most of us do it! The trick, I think, is to recognize the inspiration for what it is and then let the story’s path diverge when it needs to. (Thank you to a very wise agent, Brettne Bloom of The Book Group, who gave me that advice!)

In another post, I’ll talk about brainstorming my list of crazy stuff that’s happened to me (and not so crazy stuff, too) that could inspire my writing. I bring this up, though, because I go back to many formative, interesting experiences I had when I was college-aged, when the stakes felt pretty severe. I’m hoping one of those experiences will give me some direction on the next big writing project I plan to undertake, which will follow a young woman as she moves abroad for the year. The protagonist, as I envision her, will have quite a few naive beliefs about the place to which she is moving and the people who live there, and in being baptized in this new culture, she will come to learn how lethal her beliefs were, no matter that she shared them with most of her family and friends, people who still believe them. It will be a kind of coming-of-age story after she’s already come of age.

Cards on the table, I’ll admit that I work in international education at a university, so I am very interested in this topic. But, I have also witnessed the transformative power of a year spent meaningfully immersed in another culture. It doesn’t matter how similar or different the culture is. What does matter is the meaningfulness of the time spent.

I suppose the important thing about advice, in general, is that none of it should be universally accepted. Any piece of advice I hear, I always have to apply it to myself, what I know I am capable of, what I’m trying to accomplish. The noise of that advice, particularly advice that may be good but isn’t suited to a particular writer, has the power to stifle creativity and output. It’s a dangerous thing, to hear that advice and take it at face value. I could see it stopping me each time I sit down to write.

So instead, I take it as a caution sign. Be careful with this premise, he says; make sure your protagonist wants something and she will suffer if she doesn’t get it.

That’s advice I will make sure to take.

Travel Writing

Travel Writing

I am the worst travel writer. When my husband and I spent three weeks in India this year, I struggled to write a single creative word. The best I could do was scribbling out lists of things we did, along with a few words to jog my memory about funny anecdotes and things that happened – like the way our driver, Jagdish, would get very excited whenever some free space opened up on the highway, and would exclaim, “Yesh! Yesh!” while gripping the steering wheel. He also called me sheeshter – sister – more times than I would have liked. Voluminous writing just doesn’t come naturally to me. Words don’t pour. I’ve had to establish a routine in order to have big writing days, and even when I break the routine – writing in the afternoon rather than the morning, for example – I have to turn that deviation into a new routine in order to trick myself into writing.

Travel – the way I like to travel – generally sees me having no routine. I let myself wake up and decide what I’d like to do, in tandem with my travel mates, and let the day follow whichever course it would like. Even though this mentality can wreck my writing routine, travel has been so important to me as a writer. It has infused so many ideas in my head. A whole novel draft that I wrote last June – while traveling, believe it or not – was inspired by the time I spent in Spain, Germany and Morocco. A new novel idea is also inspired by my experience in India. So many little snippets from things I’ve written have started as an interaction I had while traveling. That exposure to things outside of my comfort zone, outside of my routine, actually help my writing. But, I still need to make a word count!

Tomorrow marks the start of a crazy summer of travel for me. I will be road-tripping with friends to Texas, road-tripping to St. Louis and Chicago with husband, flying to Portland for the Tin House writing workshop and then taking a week-long, post-bar-exam girls vacation with a good friend in Mexico. This summer of travel will be punctuated by a long weekend in New York City for the wedding of some good friends. I am also supposed to be finalizing my thesis draft this summer, while incorporating revisions into my novel and starting a new full-time job. HOW TO DO THIS WITH SO MUCH TRAVEL!?!? ARGH!

Just like I’ve done with smaller deviations in my routine, I need to come up with some goals and mini-routines within my non-routine vacation. Sequestering myself for some alone time when I can, always having my notebook handy, forcing myself to write while sipping coffee in the morning, going for long walks and talking to myself about what I’m seeing, hearing, imagining. All of these are good, tried-and-true tactics to get me to generate words while I’m on the road. And I think, since I don’t have a minimum word count hovering over me, it might be good to simply get into the habit of free writing, letting the travel experience really inform my writing.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Write about the setting – where am I? What am I looking at? What looks the same as home? What’s different? What’s the most interesting thing I can see?
  2. What are the silly snippets of conversation going back and forth between me and my travel mates? Can any of that conversation be used to inspire some snappy dialogue (probably!)?
  3. Could any of my characters from my thesis stories – or anything I’ve written – be found in this new environment? How would they react to being in the desert or in the Pacific Northwest? This prompt can help me get to know my characters better, even if they never find themselves in this situation.
  4. Imagine what is happening back home. Normally, I like to be in a place, really be there, and forget about my life back in New Orleans. But this prompt can really stoke my imagination…
  5. FOOD! What am I eating? How is it reacting to me? How am I reacting to it? Is it making me full? Sleepy? Is it better than food at home?
  6. Behind the scenes – What is happening with the staff at the hotel? What happens in the kitchen or the bar? Who has to clean the pool? Imagine miniature relationships going on between all of the people that come to this place for work.

What are some other ideas for writing prompts while traveling? How do other people keep the word count up while they’re on the road/plane/boat?